For the past eight months, we’ve been smoothing our faces the “modern” way—with an electric shaver.1 We’ve buzzed, whirred, and clipped a path toward what we hoped would be silken-jawed nirvana. To find the best electric shaver, we recruited a panel of a dozen testers, all with different beard types and shaving habits, to test a dozen of the top brands and models. Along the way, we tried a few outlier shavers that nobody should ever use. We passed the shavers around, learned how they work, discovered what they do best and what they do poorly. And we came to a pretty safe conclusion: The best shaver for most men remains the Braun Series 7 (model 760cc), just as when we first looked at the category two years ago. If that’s not available, the 790cc offers the same quality shave with a few extra-but-not-important features. When compared to other electric shavers, the only thing that could have dethroned the Braun’s proven design, excellent reliability, and top-end face-clearing abilities was, perhaps, another Braun.
A few weeks before our review was completed, that potential usurper arrived. Now widely available in the US after a months-long preview in Asia and Europe, the Braun Series 9 boosts the shaver maker’s top-end feature set and pricing by claiming to tackle three days of heavy beard growth, with a bumped-up price to match. Knowing we had to test the new Braun—which was anticipated by shaver fans for more than a year—we convinced a friend to visit Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics district and purchase one, hand-carrying it back to the US for us. (We were in a rush, because, due to the vagaries of electric shaving, carrying out a genuinely useful multi-person test takes time. More on that in a bit.)
We found Braun was as good as its marketing, with an important asterisk: The Series 9 sets a standard for performance and speed that most of our testers agreed exceeded every other shaver we tried. But we can’t recommend it as our top pick due to its price. At around $350 at time of writing, the cost of entry for the newest, latest, and greatest is just too high, and most people who shave their facial hair—whether they’re five-o’clock-shadow-by-noon types or light-and-wispy bearded—won’t need all that oomph. For nearly all daily shavers, you can get just as velvety a shave from the Series 7, which currently costs about half as much after a recent $50 price drop, although it is a little slower than the Series 9 (and until December 31, 2015, the Braun Series 7 shavers are even more of a bargain—the company is offering an online coupon, good at many, though not all, major retailers—for an additional $40 off).
Our months of testing with five men who spent time with every razor and seven others who sampled our stash more casually resulted in remarkable differences of opinion. Not a single one of our testers picked the same shaver that other testers chose as their favorite; the Braun Series 7 wins by total votes distributed among first, second, and third places. When accessories, like cleaning systems, were factored in, the tester preference pool had an even broader variety of views.
While we believe the Series 7 will please just about anyone who tries it, there are several competent alternatives out there. One of them only costs around $40 at time of writing: the Remington F5-5800, our budget pick. It provides a well-thought-out feature set and credible stubble-leveling results at a genuinely affordable price. None of our testers felt it was on the level of a Braun—but then again, it costs around less than a quarter the price.
All of our top shaver choices are foil style, which means that a bar-shaped cutting mechanism is hidden beneath a thin, perforated metal shell. Our tilt toward foils is intentional, because the other style of shaver—rotary, which uses a series of two, three, or four circular cutting heads, with a spinning blade underneath—doesn’t shave as closely for most men. (Two of our testers switched to foil from their personal rotaries after completing their shaver trials.)
We say this knowing we’re stepping into a decades-old battleground of loyalty, dogma, claim, and counterclaim. So we’ll add that many men can get a great—even a superior—shave with the right rotary, rotaries are often quieter than their foil competitors, and they’re an excellent choice for men who experience skin irritation when using foil shavers. For those men, we’ve made a rotary choice, too, which means a product from a firm that specializes in them, Philips/Norelco. We picked the Shaver 9300. Other companies make rotary shavers, but we don’t recommend them.
The bottom line? We’re confident one of the two Brauns or the Remington will please nearly anyone who prefers an electric shaver. But you’ll need to do a little homework, because there are lots of alternatives out there and electric shavers remain remarkably idiosyncratic in their approach to technology and design. Some electric razors are great, and a lot more are not so great. Most men can find one that should work. This story is designed to help you discover which.
An electric shaver needs break-in time—not for the product, but for your face. For reasons that range from the scientific to the arcane, if you’re switching from a manual to an electric, or even from one electric style to another, you’ll generally need to give your skin two weeks to adjust to the new tool. The odd thing is, we couldn’t figure out exactly why this break-in period is needed. Is it your face? Your style? Or the razor itself? Different sources give different answers, ranging from “training” your skin as it adjust from healing the scrapes caused by a manual razor compared to the pulling/shearing of electrics; others say that the issue is the users themselves. We did a literature search and found no academic research on the topic, so suffice it to say that, for all of our testers, the break-in period was real. That means your first electric shaves will be patchy and probably painful, and you shouldn’t touch things up with a manual razor (that defeats the purpose of the break-in period). All major shaver makers offer 30- to 60-day money back guarantees, and we recommend that you both give your new shaver time to reach peak performance and not be shy about requesting that refund if it doesn’t.2
And it may not turn out to be optimum for you, depending on what kind of beard you have and how close you want your shave to be. Though most manufacturers insist that their electric products can smooth your face as well as a traditional blade (and this may be true for some men), the physical mechanics of how electric shavers actually remove your stubble creates a closeness limit that some users will certainly notice, especially when compared to manual razors.
Electric shavers work on a totally different principle. Foil-based systems use one or more cutting blocks mounted beneath the thin metal head. The foil’s perforations guide the whiskers into the block, where a pair of opposing blades slice them off. The action is more like a pair of scissors than a knife. Rotary shavers use similar perforated surfaces to guide the whisker toward their cutters, but instead of snipping, hundreds of tiny blades use a circular motion; imagine the spinning disc of a car wax buffer—but with teeth—and you’ll get the idea.
The problem—and the reason “shaves as close as a blade” claims aren’t necessarily credible—is that foils and circular heads keep your skin and the cutting mechanism from achieving contact. No matter how thin those barriers are, you’ll never get the cutting part of an electric shaver as close to your face as a standard razor blade.
One way shaver makers have tried to improve closeness, to compensate for the barrier layer between shaver and user, is by employing mechanisms that lift, cut, and guide facial hair into the cutter. In addition to multiple heads, foil shaver makers add jagged guide blocks that are designed to capture longer, tougher hairs; their variable patterns are designed to act as whisker-trapping labyrinths. Rotary shaver makers use beard lifters that are built into the dozens of tiny, spinning blades; they’re generally scythe-shaped, so that hairs are (in theory) scooped up and pulled taut and out from beneath the skin line, where they can be cleanly cut.3 Both rotary and foil manufacturers add pulses and sonic vibrations to their higher-end models. These are designed to get your whiskers standing a little straighter for better contact with the shaver’s cutters.
Each shaver manufacturer plays what looks like a game of musical chairs with product names, series designations, and features. For example, Braun’s 9095cc is part of the Series 9 line. Two other Series 9 shavers are available in the US. In Japan, a total of six make the lineup. Other shaver brands are similarly divided.
What’s important to remember is that, for the most part, shavers in the same series have the same cutting mechanism: Every Series 9 is going to shave you as well as every other Series 9. What’s different is additional features and functions, ranging from cleaning systems to advanced digital displays. So a large part of this review is devoted to helping you figure out exactly what extras you should care about and which you shouldn’t. Knowing this, you’ll be able to adjust your purchasing decision up or down within an individual shaver series designation.
Alongside Braun, Philips, and Remington is Panasonic, which makes more than 50 different models, many of them packed with innovative features. They’re popular in Asia, but less so in Europe and the US. We tested three Panasonics, and though a few of our testers ranked them highly, we generally found that they don’t work as well as their equivalent Brauns, with one notable exception. Panasonic makes the only all-in-one shaver/trimmer/groomer that did an adequate job at all three functions (see below). Another shaver maker that intrigued us was Wahl, a US-based company best known for barbershop-quality trimmers and clippers, including our pick for best in that category. Wahl’s lesser-known line of electric shavers is inexpensive, powerful, and beloved by professional barbers. But as much as we’d like to recommend them, they have a few drawbacks that prevent that.
There are also several name-brand electronics companies that sell shavers overseas, but not in the US. Toshiba’s made-in-Japan shavers are well-regarded in that nation. Hitachi offers an inexpensive unit in Japan with a unique spinning cutter that attempts to combine the best qualities of rotaries and foils. But because these are so difficult to find and service—and electric shavers do need service—we can’t recommend them.
The same holds true for vintage shavers. On sites like eBay, for very little money, you can find gorgeous 1960s Brauns, ancient Philips shavers that look like cigars, or products from now-defunct manufacturers like Ronson and Sunbeam. There’s a reason for that: Electric shavers wear out. Foils and cutting blocks need to be replaced. And there’s almost no way to find parts for shavers that are more than a decade or two old. Most of the vintage shavers found on eBay—and we tried a few—are so heavily used that trying one will almost certainly result in your face looking like a slice of bologna that’s been passed through a red-hot cheese grater.
Beyond the well-known brands, there’s a fascinating and weird world of off-label, knockoff, and super cheap electric shavers, found mostly at the madcap fringes of electronic commerce. We won’t link to these, but simply note that if you want an electric shaver that can also function as a battery backup for your smartphone, you can find one. Whether it will sufficiently extend talk time or reduce your whiskers is something you’ll have to learn for yourself.
To help with all that electric shaver discovery, it pays to know a little bit about why electric shavers exist and how they came to be in the first place. Most relevant to your modern purchasing decision? That electric shaver technology hasn’t changed much in the past five decades, but the reasons we buy electric shavers have.
Poor Colonel Jacob Schick. The native Iowan was a constant tinkerer: He invented a special boat suited to navigating in shallow water as well as an improved pencil sharpener. But while his name lives on as a major shaving brand, he never got to experience the riches and comfort of his rival, King C. Gillette.
Gillette, of course, invented the first popular safety razor, liberating men around the world from the drudgery and danger of knife-sharp edges and constant maintenance. Schick, too, came up with a better manual razor: a cartridge-based product with a sharp single blade that was popped into place via a spring-loaded magazine. But it wasn’t enough. Schick was a restless entrepreneur, and in the early years of the 20th century, he spent much of his time in Alaska searching for gold while making a living stringing telegraph wires.
It was during that time, according to his Connecticut Historical Society biography, that Schick injured his hands, making it impossible for him to shave manually. After cobbling together some spare parts, Schick invented one of the first electricity-driven shaving contraptions. It consisted of a handheld cutting head attached by a heavy cord to a motor—a gigantic motor, as big and noisy as a squirrel with its head stuck in a beer can. The product was not a success.
When World War I broke out, Schick abandoned the project, returning in 1925 with his Eversharp cartridge system, blades for which are still sold today under the Schick injector brand name. But the entrepreneur didn’t give up on his power razor dream, even selling his manual shaver business to fund product development. In 1929, the Schick Dry Shaver company introduced its first product. “Dry” was a key marketing attribute. Though safety razors had made shaving easier and quicker, most men still had to adhere to a relatively time-consuming routine of using a brush and soap to build a lather. Schick promised a faster shave, no water or brushes needed. By 1935, the Schick Model S was a credible alternative for men looking to streamline their morning routine, with sales reaching 1,000,000 annually.
I got ahold of a Model S from eBay, where they’re cheap, and was surprised by how similar they are to today’s shavers. The fundamental principle of cutting hair with electricity hasn’t altered much since Schick introduced his product. In early shavers, like now, a motor drove tiny, opposing blades—an armada of miniature snippers—back and forth, grabbing and shearing facial hair. The big difference: Schick’s early product didn’t use a foil. The cutters pressed directly against the face, directing whiskers through a metal comb similar to what you’ll find on the sideburn trimmer attachments found on most modern electrics. I had a hard time imagining how this could be comfortable.
Or, it turns out, efficient. Just as electric shaving technology remains unchanged at its core, so have the questions men pose about the practice. In its very first review of electric shavers, dated October 1936, Consumer Reports focused (as we did) on both closeness and comfort, with not-so-awesome results. In the story, entitled “Three Electric Shavers – One Works,” reviewers were asked whether the Schick—the one that worked—or either of a pair of terrible competitors were worth their $15 price tags (about $250 today), whether they could shave as well as a blade, and whether they were less irritating. The summary? Probably not, no, and hardly.
Soon afterward, Remington entered the market. It started as a firearms manufacturer in the early 1800s, then moved on to typewriters, introducing the first with a QWERTY keyboard, and then on to sewing machines, punch-card calculators, and personal care products—all industries requiring the mass precision manufacture of metal parts. In 1937, it introduced the Model E “Close-Shaver,” the first to cover the cutting head with a comfort-promoting foil. By the time World War II was over, only Schick still used exposed metal cutters. The rest featured foil-covered heads tethered to a wall by a fixed electric cord. Remington had even introduced a three-headed version; the working end of the Model 25 looks remarkably like today’s foil shavers.
There’s a reason foil systems have been so durably popular. By creating a barrier that guides whiskers through tiny openings, foils provide predictable comfort and a smooth motion across most faces.
But foils had a problem. The same barrier that made them work more comfortably meant they could no longer cut as closely. That’s true today as well, and that’s why companies like Braun continue to tweak their shaver designs by adding mechanisms that lift, grab, and pull facial hair away from the skin, into the foil, and toward the cutters. Whether they work and whether you’ll find those mechanisms irritating is something you can only discover post-purchase. That, too, is unchanged since the early days of powered facial hair removal: In 1946, Consumer Reports urged shoppers to make sure they bought electric shavers “on trial with a return privilege.”
As foil models began to dominate, with even Schick eventually adopting them, a second branch of electric shaver design philosophy was emerging in Europe. In 1939, a Dutch engineer named Alexandre Horowitz was working for Philips, a company that had begun in the late 19th century as a manufacturer of light bulbs and was expanding into a broad array of consumer and industrial electronics, including home radio sets and the first mass-produced X-ray machines. Horowitz showed his bosses a prototype for a new style of electric shaver that he nicknamed “the cigar” based on the product’s shape. (Imagine a single-headed modern Philips shave head mounted to a stubby brown handle.) Horowitz’s so-called “rotary” shavers used an entirely different cutting mechanism than the snippy-scissor blocks found in early Schick products and their foil-sheathed successors. The Philips cutter spun and whirred beneath a disc-shaped, flexible, perforated screen. Horowitz and Philips believed that the circular action would pull and tug less, while a smaller head would provide maneuverability, especially at the jawline.
By the 1950s, the Philips “Steel Beard” shaver was the world’s most popular, partially due to the product’s innovative, comfortable design. That comfort trumped closeness, as foil products continually left Consumer Reports testers with smoother but more irritated faces throughout the 1950s. Philips, which operated under the Norelco brand name in the US (short for North American Philips Electric Company; the Philips trademark was already taken), appeared to offer the right combination of comfort, closeness, and style. It also helped that the Philips shavers were very different from the similar-appearing, similar-performing foil shavers offered by Schick, Remington, Ronson, and Sunbeam.
The shavers of the 1940s and 1950s weren’t much to look at. They were functional, usually made of metal and Bakelite plastic, and often rather large. They were still mostly powered by cords, though some battery-operated shavers began to appear around 1960. But the early days of shaver function were about to be replaced by a golden age of electric shaver beauty.
Like Philips, Germany’s Braun had begun with other products. Primarily a radio maker, Braun was one of the first companies to introduce an all-in-one entertainment device—a multi-band receiver with a built-in record player. During World War II, the company’s Frankfurt facilities were destroyed, and Braun executives used the post-conflict rebuilding effort to branch into new product categories, including a foil-based electric shaver.
Americans didn’t know much about Braun shavers, mostly because a patent dispute with Remington kept those products from arriving on our shores until the 1970s. Everywhere else, Braun shavers were a huge hit. That was partially because their paper-thin, meticulously machined foils meant closer shaves, but also because of their gorgeous design. Braun took it as implicit that the products it offered had to work well and look good, and it believed that the highest aesthetic ideal would be products whose beauty and function merged into a single seamless, nearly magical experience.
Braun assembled a team with a wide variety of backgrounds and skills: movie set artist Fritz Eichler, Bauhaus architects Hans Gugelot and Otl Aicher, and a boy wonder designer named Dieter Rams, hired in 1955 at age 23. Braun’s creative team methodically revamped every product in the company’s vast lines. Wooden radios that had looked like pieces of furniture were miniaturized and made sleek with black and metallic finishes and minimal controls. One of the most gorgeous of Rams’s designs is the T3 Pocket Radio, which became part of New York’s Museum of Modern Art collection in 1958 and served as the inspiration for Apple’s original iPod. (There’s lots of Braun DNA in Apple’s aesthetic.)
Braun’s shavers went through an equally brilliant and radical rethink. The company’s earlier iterations showed a hint of design sensibility, but they remained clunky, more resembling barber shop clippers than anything else. Rams and his team shrunk the Braun razor down, introducing 1955’s 300 Special DL3, which combined a compact, easy-to-grip shape with a sleek, polished metal head. For the next two decades, Rams and his successors honed the form factor, culminating in the Sixtant series, probably the most gorgeous electric shavers ever created. (They’re all here. Feast your eyes.)
But by the 1970s, the design of many electric shavers underwent what looks like an inexorable feature creep; the modern, largish shavers of today began to take form during that decade. Philips/Norelco devices gained a second rotating head, then a third. The need for shavers to be cordless meant that motor and battery sizes and shapes had to change. Braun’s minimalist designs persisted until the 1980s, when additional features—charging lights and pop-up trimmers—stretched the company’s form factor.
By 1990, Rams’s design DNA could still be detected in Braun’s razors, but they seemed more and more tarted-up and laden with often functional, but rarely pretty, new components. The first modern-looking Braun units appeared in 2001 with the Syncro System 7680, the earliest electric shaver to include a cleaning base. Consumers purchased cartridges filled with an alcohol-based sanitizing fluid; they’d drop their shaver into the grapefruit-sized device, press a button, and find a clean, charged unit waiting for them the next day. There were some nice touches—the slight tilt of the razor inserted into the base allowed the fluid to better flow around the shaver head—but the era of Braun beauty had ended.
Braun’s introduction of a self-cleaning razor that required a monthly consumable purchase directly contradicted the buy-once marketing proposition that had informed the electric razor business since Jacob Schick’s days. Many saw this as a cynical attempt to squeeze more money out of consumers, likely at the behest of Gillette, which had begun to buy shares of the company in 1967. (Eventually, under corporate parent Procter & Gamble, Gillette/Braun would sell off or discontinue the German manufacturer’s non-personal-care products. The company made its last radio in 1990; the company’s current line of kitchen goods and appliances is mostly manufactured under license by Italian home goods giant DeLonghi.)
As Braun attempted to change the fundamental economics of electric shaving, one of its biggest rivals, Panasonic, added another twist. The so-called “Mr. Whisk,” introduced to US consumers in 1983, became the first popular shaver that could be used in the shower and with shaving cream, if the owner really cared to do so. At the same time, American-built electric shavers were vanishing. Ronson and Sunbeam exited the business; Remington moved production overseas. Today, only Wahl continues to manufacture electric shavers in the US. The other shaver makers tend to build their higher-end products in their home countries, while inexpensive models are usually made in China.
In addition to piling on features, the biggest change in electric shavers is what men do with them. Electric shaver sales, as with manual razor sales, have dropped in recent years as beards and scruff become more popular. A carefully manicured crop of facial hair almost inevitably requires power tools, so all the major razor makers have introduced combination units that transform shavers into trimmers or clippers. For the most part, the combo units do a poor job at both tasks, which is why this review is aimed at people who want to keep their faces completely shorn rather than maintain levels of complex topiary.
So if electric shavers have never worked as well, cost more, and aren’t as technologically advanced as current marketing campaigns would have you believe, why use them at all? It turns out there are several good reasons.
One not-so-secret aspect of the electric shaver market is that most are purchased as presents, either during the holiday season or for Father’s Day. That results in an odd phenomenon: A lot of people end up shaving with a gifted electric razor out of a sense of obligation, they don’t like it much, and eventually give up. (We heard multiple versions of this scenario as we assembled a test crew.) This “I didn’t buy it” aspect of electric shaving is unique, and it speaks to an imbalance between what electric shavers have always promised and what they’ve delivered.
The traditional sales pitch for electric shavers has always been that they offer a valuable convenience and safety proposition. They were faster and easier to use than old-fashioned double-edge blades, brushes, and soaps. Another appeal made by manufacturers has been a modern, jet-set feel, an idea that going electric meant an impeccably groomed man’s impeccable groom could be maintained anywhere, anytime. (Don Draper is seen using a Remington several times during Mad Men, once in his office and another time in an airplane lavatory.)
But modern, multi-blade shaving manual systems have made wet shaving much faster, safer, and more convenient, and the days when a baby-bottom smooth face was a requirement for anyone aspiring to male style and perfection are long gone.
Even so, there are still plenty of people who prefer electric shaving. “For me, it’s more convenient,” said Matt Philips, test director at Bicycling magazine. Philips, who has used Braun shavers for more than a decade, said that he likes not having to constantly buy blades as well as being able to avoid complicated prep. Our testers agreed. The three who were habitual electric shavers all pointed to the product’s water-free convenience and the idea that one could shave anytime, anywhere, as their shaving motivation.
Those who find manual shaving too rough on their skin might also try electric shaving. Although neither method is specifically more gentle, people who have problems with one kind of shaving or shaver often do better when they switch. Black men can be particularly predisposed to ingrown hairs and razor bumps, due to their typically coiled hair, and the less-close shave of electric can help, and people of any race who have coarse or curly whiskers can benefit. (Some medical studies, like this one from 2010, show that electric shaver users may be less likely to experience these conditions.)
Other men we spoke to preferred electric shaving because they liked the technology/gadget aspects of the products. People who travel frequently may also prefer an electric shaver, since you don’t run into TSA restrictions on blades, aerosols, and toiletries. All the shavers we tested last at least two weeks on a single charge; units that came with clean/charge stations also can be charged directly from the standard included power adapter.
One warning for on-the-go shavers: The foil heads found on most electric units are fragile, and if you dent or bend one, you’ll need to replace it. Most shavers come with some kind of case or shaving head protector. We recommend using it.
Early on, we decided on some simple criteria for picking the best electric shaver. Though we did evaluate cleaning and charging systems, we decided our criteria for the winning shaver would be based exclusively on closeness of shave. That’s because, in the end, that’s all that matters—and because nearly all the shaver makers offer versions of their various products with and without those bells and whistles.
We wanted to test high- and low-end models from all the major razor companies. We wanted to come up with picks for both budget-minded and want-it-all users, and we wanted a wide enough variety of testers to determine how much shaver a particular type of user might need. Our ultimate testing team was both physically and ethnically diverse. It included men with heavy beards who shaved daily, men with light beards who shaved as little as once or twice a week, and black testers, who often have tight, inward-curling facial hair that frequently leads to razor bumps.
We asked each tester to keep the razors long enough to test against whatever their standard “I need a shave” interval was. We then asked for a double growth test—skipping a shave—and as a go-for-broke scenario, a triple shave’s growth. We asked testers to be mindful of closeness, speed, and irritation. We also allowed testers to keep the razors for extended periods—at least two weeks—to allow for facial break-in. Testers were encouraged to shave one side of their face with one razor and the other side with another so they could perform direct closeness comparisons (compensating, of course, for problem areas; many shavers find that one side or portion of their face is tougher to shave than another).
One thing that makes testing and choosing electric shavers confusing is that nearly all manufacturers offer their products in accessory- and feature-laden (or not) “Series” sales schemes. Braun, for example, offers six versions of the Series 9 worldwide. Some come with cleaning systems; some don’t. Some can be used in the shower with shaving cream; some can’t. Some have digital readouts showing how much battery is left in the shaver or whether it needs to be cleaned; others offer simpler LED displays.
Here’s the thing: The shavers are all the same. Any Braun Series 9, regardless of accessories and features, will shave your face just as closely any other Series 9. Same with anything in Panasonic’s various series designations; same with Philips and Remington. But adding or subtracting a feature or two can shift the price of a shaver by as much as $100. For that kind of money, it’s really important to know what’s worth it—and what isn’t. Here’s what we think, feature-by-feature.
When it comes to cleaning systems we’re going to give a qualified thumbs up. The systems we tested really work well. It is incredibly convenient to shave and then just pop your razor into a docking station and have it charged up and ready to go the next morning.
But there are some major drawbacks to such systems. The first is economic and philosophical—it is hard to get over the suspicion that cleaning systems are simply a way to add consumables to the electric razor equation. The original electric razor sales proposition was that you didn’t need such products—that once you bought an electric, you didn’t need to purchase anything else (other than maintaining the cutting blocks and foils).
This is especially true with today’s rinsable razors. A little warm water and a gentle brushing will clean your razor as well as a standard cleaning system. (And if you want extra cleaning and maintenance, you can use a can of shaver cleaner. Yes, it’s another consumable, but a very low-cost one: A $5 can lasts a year, compared to about $5 a month for cleaning cartridges.)
Second, cleaners are loud (some roar, others just whirr), and it’s noticeable. Testers and their roommates remarked on it. They’re also bulky, requiring space that might be at a premium in a bathroom or apartment.
Cleaning systems can be purchased separately, but usually at a premium high enough that if you think you might want one, it’s best to get the razor model that already comes with one. That said, the ease of rinsing a shaver in the sink—especially when traveling—was a winning proposition, so we decided to only recommend razors that could also be cleaned that way.
The ability to shave with shaving cream isn’t the same as rinsability (some shavers can handle straight water for cleaning, but not lathering facial products). Why use an electric shaver and shaving cream? Good question. There’s no doubt that some men find the practice more comfortable, but most of our testers found the proposition dubious; once you’re shaving semi-traditionally, you’ll probably get better results by going all the way and using a standard blade like our manual shaving choice, the Gillette Mach 3 Sensitive.
That said, for people who must use an electric razor for reasons of comfort or skin sensitivity, being able to ease the glide with a little dab of foam is probably a good thing. But know that (as our testers found) the foil-clogging, extra-gooey nature of the practice is likely going to increase the amount of time you spend shaving if you want to reach the closeness you’d get going dry. If you choose to shave in the shower, rinse that shaver often.
What about battery and cleanliness indicators? They’re nice, and having a graduated one—like the one found on the Remington F5-5800, which uses a temperature-gauge style readout to indicate how much juice you’ve got left—is nice. Though there’s something macho about shavers that don’t have any such readout—the Wahls, for example—and there’s an argument to be made that if you plug in or dock your shaver daily, you don’t need it, we like the feature.
Both Braun and Panasonic offer the widest array of battery display options. Some of their shavers use detailed digital LCD screens placed at the bottom of the shaver. Those readouts are nice, but they’re not worth it. All you need to know is how much battery is left, and a few glowing bars handle that just fine for a lot less money.
One overlooked accessory to consider: a carrying case. The heads and foils on electric shavers are delicate and need to be protected. Most shavers come with some kind of carrying or protective device. We were surprised, and a little disappointed, to see that the Braun Series 9 came with a soft fake-leather case that offered less protection than the semi-hardshell case supplied with our Series 7. Lower-end shavers tend to come with plastic head guards; they snap on for transport. They work, but we managed to lose almost every one of them during our months of testing.
Once we’d come up with our criteria, we began gathering shavers. We asked shaver manufacturers to pare their product lines down to currently available offerings. We requested that they send us what they viewed as their best product and what they viewed as their budget offering. We looked at existing reviews to find the “must-have” picks, and then sorted through Amazon reviews to find the best-loved and/or most-reviewed products (this was more difficult than it sounds, since the multiple layers of same-shaver-with-different-accessories model number chaos mean that the identical shaver gets offered and reviewed with varying frequency).
We also wanted to add a few low-end, off-brand shavers. In the end, we ended up dividing a group of 15 products, including three from Braun—a Series 7, Series 5, and a Series 3, all with cleaning units—and three from Panasonic, including a top-of-the-line five-blade Arc5, a four-blade Arc4, and a triple-blade Arc3 with an integrated trimming system. The modern foil competition rounded out with a low-priced Remington and the US-made Wahl Custom Shave, which comes with a trio of interchangeable foils designed for different facial types. We then added a pair of Philips models: the lower-priced, three-headed 4500 (this is the one you often find at chain drug stores) and the ultra-high-end Shaver 9300.
We also couldn’t resist throwing a few unofficial candidates at a subset of our testers. This include Hitachi’s well-regarded but not-available-in-the-US S-Blade RM160, a shaver that features a unique cutting technology that is a sort of foil-rotary hybrid (there’s a rotating blade underneath a foil head; the cutter spins like an old-fashioned push lawn mower, rather than laying flat, like the car-wax-buffer-like discs on Philips rotaries do). We also picked up a few under-$10 self-mutilating devices online, including the Aokai T01 and the Kemei Classical Multifunction Model 5600. Those products were a great way for us to learn that technology does matter and that there is a limit to how low a shaver can go. Both these products dip significantly beneath that waterline, though the Kemei gets a few goofball style points because it 1) has a fake stitched leather finish, 2) looks like an oversized cigarette lighter, and 3) has a built-in mirror (we especially loved the built-in mirror. What a great idea, we thought, except, of course, you can’t actually look into it while you’re shaving). Go Kemei!
After more than eight months of testing with our dozen testers, five of whom spent time with every razor and others who sampled our stash more casually, we have to say that we’re amazed at the differences of opinion and choice. Not a single one of our testers picked the same favorite as any other. When add-ons were factored in—specifically whether or not to go with a cleaning system—the choice became even more confusing. With so many shavers to choose from, we narrowed the field after experimenting with some criteria. We decided that only shavers that are available both with and without cleaning units—to give consumers better choice—would be considered.
In the end, the Braun Series 7 was the first-place choice for just two of our testers, myself and Wirecutter Inner Vision contributor Gregory Han (and Han switched to the Series 9 after testing that product). But when second- and third-place votes were tallied, the Series 7 was a clear winner; it was the only shaver all our testers agreed worked well, shaving closely and without irritation. Though it is no longer the German shaver giant’s top-of-the-line offering, the Series 7 still offers a just-right combination of upgrades over Braun’s lower-end models and affordability compared to the new Series 9.
So what does the Series 7 do that lower-end Brauns can’t? And why is the Series 9 a better shaver that’s not worth the higher price? A physical examination makes the differences pretty apparent. If you look at all four Braun series offerings—the 3, 5, 7, and 9—you’ll notice that they use fairly similar designs when it comes to foils. Each is fundamentally a double-foil shaver with a trimmer mechanism centered between the foils. On the Series 3/5/7, there’s just a single trimmer. If you observe the razor when you turn it on, you’ll see that the trimmer contains openings that vibrate when activated; the idea is that the vibration captures the toughest parts of your beard with a high-speed scissoring action. Our testers who preferred the Braun shavers—and that was most of them—reported that they did notice a difference between product lines. Gregory Han, who uses a Braun Series 7 as his daily shaver, reported that the Series 3 had “chintzy plastic parts” and seemed less powerful than either the Series 5 or Series 7. “I had to go over sections numerous times to achieve a smooth face,” he said. The Series 5 shaved Han almost twice as fast.
The Series 5 and Series 7 were close enough that we wondered what the difference between them was. Han said he noticed variances in build quality between the two, though both are fairly even in size and appearance and their use of plastic. (Dr. Miriam Rietzler, Braun’s director for global scientific communications, said that all of its shavers, from one end of the product line to another, have a useful life of about seven years).
The difference that sets the Series 7 apart, it turns out, is mostly internal. The clue to that is the different sounds the shavers make when being operation. The Series 7’s higher-pitched buzz is the shaver’s “Pulsonic” technology; the product’s faster vibrations are designed to lift hair faster and more completely. In practice, we found it actually worked. (The Series 5, by comparison, has a throatier, more mechanical sound.4)
A more visible difference is the way the heads of the two razors move. Though both heads pivot, the Series 7 features floating foils that adjust individually in multiple directions; there’s much less play in the Series 5’s foils. It’s important to note that when comparing shavers, there’s no direct way to compare motor strength. When Braun’s Pulsonic system claims “10,000 vibrations” compared to Panasonic’s “13,000 cycle linear drive”, you’re dealing mostly with marketing terminology—though the higher-end occupants of any one manufacturer’s product line did seem to run stronger than their cheaper stablemates, as measured by shaving speed.
We aren’t alone in loving the Series 7. In addition to it being our previous pick, we also found it to be a top choice among other shaver reviewers. It topped the most recent Consumer Reports (subscription required) shaver round-up. It was chosen as best shaver by the Independent’s David Phelan in 2014. The ShaverGuru website also picked it as the best shaver, and Gizmodo ran two electric shaver reviews in 2013, choosing the Braun in October after relegating it to fourth place (the previous winner was the Philips Sensotouch 3D) earlier in that year. Pauper’s Dime, a website dedicated to budget choices, offered practical advice on choosing a shaver and saving money—“don’t buy the cleaning systems”—but still chose the Series 7 as its favorite Braun. Finally, the Series 7 is the choice of Tyler Stokes, who runs electric-shaver-guide.com, probably our favorite how-to-buy-an-electric-shaver website. Stokes offers tips on how to pick a shaver based on your habits and beard type, and his free downloadable 70-page guide to choosing and using an electric shaver is the most authoritative piece of work we’ve found on the topic.
Our pick is the Braun Series 7 model 760cc. If that’s not available, the 790cc offers the same quality shave with a few extra-but-not-important features. The fanciest among these is that the 790cc includes extra electronic indicators to let you know when foil replacement is needed and whether or not the shaver is dirty. Since foil replacement is subjective—you’ll want to do so every 18 months or so, and you’ll know when your shave quality declines—and since the cleanliness indicator is rendered moot if you store the shaver in the charging/cleaning cradle, we don’t consider these features to be worth the extra dollars they cost. But since both Series 7 models are now reduced in price, if you can’t find the 760cc, go with the 790cc.
Rumors began spreading about a top-of-the-line addition to Braun’s shavers in early 2015. This was going to be Braun’s ultimate shaver, with a new cutting mechanism and head that would make the Series 7 obsolete. By summer of this year, the product was available in Europe and Japan, but a US launch wasn’t scheduled until September. Knowing that we had to test the product, we sent a colleague out to Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics shopping district to pick up a model 9095cc, one of six versions with varying levels of wet/dry function, cleaning systems, and digital readouts available in Japan. (In the US, and we consider this a blessing, there are just three Series 9 shavers available: the wet/dry 9095cc, which comes with a cleaning system; the 9093cc, which is washable, but can’t be used with shaving cream and which doesn’t come with a cleaning unit; and the 9090cc, which is basically a 9093cc with a cleaning system.)
On first glance, the biggest difference between the Series 9 and the Series 7 is size. Though the razors weigh the same—each about 7.6 ounces—the Series 9 is longer, has more girth, and has a more top-heavy balance thanks to its quadruple-headed shaving mechanism. That four-way head sticks to the company’s traditional two-foil design but adds a pair of additional cutting mechanisms, a new “direct & cut” trimmer and a “hyper-lift & cut” trimmer, that the company claims better snag wiry, unruly whiskers.
All this means—and most of our testers agreed—that the Series 9 is an amazing shaver. For those who loved it, it shaved faster and smoother than anything we tried. When I tried the product on my three-day beard—seeing if the new shaver could live up to the hype—I found that it worked better than any electric shaver I’ve ever tried (though it paled in comparison to a standard blade when confronted with my iron curtain of a half-week’s whiskers).
But the Series 9 isn’t perfect. All that extra power and performance come at a dollar and a design cost. The Series 9 is bulkier, and some testers found it tough to maneuver in the tight spots (like the equally ginormous Panasonic Arc5, which the Braun somewhat mimics). And in the end, it was hard to say that the Series 9 is $200 better than the Series 7. And the crappy soft shell case that comes with the Series 9 seems to be an absurd cost-saving measure; for the $200 price premium, the thing should come packaged in a wall safe.
Technologically, the Series 9 is a major advance. But the astronomical price means it makes sense only for the earliest of early adopters, true have-the-best mega-shoppers, and possibly steel-wool-bearded lumberjacks with trust funds. For everyone else (and that’s pretty much everyone) the Series 7 will get your face nice and smooth a bit less quickly, but quickly enough and at enough of a savings to buy several years’ worth of replacement cutting blocks, foils, and cleaning solution.
While most of our testers reported better results from higher-end shavers, we also wanted to test cheaper models less than $50. Winnowing this field left us with the Remington F5-5800 holding the fort against the lower-end Brauns and Panasonics.
There’s a lot of good to say about the Remington, though it differed from the Brauns in that not every one of our testers thought it gave a decent shave. Los Angeles attorney Andrew Lichtman, probably the most budget-conscious of our testers, absolutely loved the Remington. “This did everything I needed it to do,” Lichtman said. The product has the look of a Braun clone and uses a proven dual-foil system with a center lift/cut trimmer mated to a pivoting head; there’s an informative thermometer-like battery readout, and while there’s no cleaning system available, the shaver is easily rinsed under running water.
It uses a NiMH battery, instead of lithium-ion as the Brauns do, but Amazon reviewers report that they get more than an hour of shave per charge time even after several years of usage. Remington’s replacement foils are half the price of Braun’s and Panasonic’s as well (and you may have to replace them more, not because they’re any less durable, but because the Remington comes only with a cheap plastic head protector that’s easily lost). Nevertheless, the Remington offers generally good performance, though you’ll likely find the shave experience itself to be buzzier and potentially more irritating if you don’t maintain a very light touch.
We initially wanted to look at Wahl’s legendary 5 Star shaver; the maroon-colored model is beloved by barbers, who have nicknamed it “The Brick,” but since it is generally sold via pro barber supply sources, we opted for a close cousin, the company’s Custom Shaver. This is about as generic-looking an electric shaver as you can find—a tapered hunk of black plastic, a non-floating head, and an on-off switch. The Wahl is the only shaver we tested that’s US-made, if that’s important to you, and is the product of decades of basement tinkering on the part of Jack Wahl, the son of the company’s founder (and the father of Greg Wahl, the company’s current CEO). The company’s founder, Leo Wahl, invented the trimmer in 1919; his son Jack, according to Steven Yde, Wahl’s marketing director, was equally obsessed with shavers and spent decades tinkering with foil and cutter designs. The result was a shaver that tried to cover all facial bases by offering a trio of interchangeable foils: one for standard closeness, one for sensitive skin, and another for “ultra closeness.” The foils are visibly different—smaller holes mean a less-aggressive shave—and Yde recommends that users “never begin with the ultra head. It will eat you alive.” A couple of our testers really liked the basic look and feel of the Wahl and found the shaver to cut powerfully and smoothly, and we love the idea and history behind the product. That said, the Wahls can’t be cleaned under water (you use a brush) and don’t have a terribly good reputation for longevity from Amazon reviewers. Remington it is.
What about Braun’s biggest competitor, Panasonic? Like Braun, that company offers razors in series with and without cleaning units. In fact, Panasonic’s range of models is dizzyingly confusing, so much so that we found it hard to narrow down our choices to a few test units (and we’re guessing that consumers have similar issues).
The company’s top-of-the-line series, the Arc 5, includes a total of five blades—a quartet of foils and a single oscillating lift-and-cut center trimmer. Like the Series 9, this is a bulky unit, and some of our testers found the oversized heads difficult to maneuver, especially around the mustache area. And overall, despite the extra shaving heads, we found neither the Arc 5 nor the Arc 4—basically the same shaver, but with one less foil—to shave as well as the comparable Brauns. (There was one exception; if you’re looking for an all-in-one beard trimmer/body groomer/electric shaver, there’s a Panasonic for you.)
Most of our testers liked the Panasonics, but few loved them. Lichtman, a long-time rotary razor user, found that the Panasonic units shaved a little faster than the Brauns, but in the end preferred the simplicity and efficiency of the Remington.
One big difference we noted with the Panasonics was the level of flotation in their heads. The business ends of both four-blade ES-LA93 (the Arc 4) and the five-blade ES-LV81 (the Arc 5) were gigantic, almost double the size of Braun’s Series 5 and 7 shavers. While both shavers worked quickly enough to get faces smooth, the size of the shaving heads was an issue when it came to maneuverability in the mustache area and under the lower lip. Another negative was the glossy black finish found on most Panasonics. It was a “fingerprint magnet,” one tester reported, “and it looked undesirably dirty after use.”
On the other hand, manual cleaning of the Panasonics—that is, without a cleaning system—was reported to be much easier. The foil and heads of the Panasonic units pop off with a single, easy button push, exposing the cutting blocks for quick rinsing.
One Panasonic fan on the Wirecutter staff is Glenn Fleishman, a dedicated electric shaver who has owned Brauns as well. Fleishman said that he’s impressed with the longevity of his four-year-old Arc 3. Other shavers, he said, had a drop-off in power as their batteries neared the end of their useful life. “This one has kept the same amount of torque since the day I got it,” Fleishman said, both in terms of overall ability to charge fully and to deliver full torque even when a given charge is below 10 percent.
When you look at other shaver reviews, you’ll find that reviewers have often done the equivalent of throwing up their hands when it comes to settling the foil versus rotary debate. Usually, knowing that people are dogmatic about such things, they make a choice for both. We’re going to say that the vast majority of users will do better with a foil-based product. But there are some—those with sensitive skin, especially—who’ll want to try rotaries. You should know that using a rotary can involve compromises. The shape of the razor makes it hard to see where you’re shaving, and their round heads mean that certain areas—like your chin—are going to be tough to maneuver. (Rotary shavers will argue that their preferred shaver style works better on necks; these battles have been going on since the 1950s, and to everyone who has an opinion, here’s what we say: You’re right.) That means you’ll need to perform a little trial and error and, yes, take advantage of those refund policies.
When it comes to rotary shavers, most people think of the inventor of the category, Philips/Norelco. Like most shaver makers, Philips takes a series-based approach, with the top-of-the-line 9000 models offering the most features. It’s hard to pick a single Philips shaver, since the company offers a staggering 70+ products in the US, but we found that the Series 9000 units worked just a bit better than the lower-priced Series 7000 units. What’s the difference? Norelco’s 9000 series products use a floating head that pivots in more directions, which the company claims allows the shaver to better trace the lines of your face; internally, the rotary cutters are patterned in V-shaped slots that the company says do a better job of capturing stray hairs. In a mirror of the battle of the Brauns, the 7000 model Philips rotaries will shave you as closely as the 9000 series at a cost of a little more time and care. But unlike our choice of the Braun Series 7 over the Series 9, the price differential between the two Philips models is only twenty dollars, leading us to recommend the higher-end product. Our rotary pick, the Series 9300 S9311, costs around $220 at time of writing. There’s a much pricier Philips, the Series 9700, but all you get for an extra $120 is a numeric battery indicator, rather than a series of LED bars. Not worth it.
Another Philips you should probably ignore, unless you’re a dedicated rotary user and very strapped for cash, is the model 4500. This is one you’ll most often find (there are several variants) at drug stores. We found it to be slow and imprecise as well as difficult to maneuver, since the shaver’s three heads are fixed to the razor body rather than hovering above it, the way the company’s higher-end models work. That said, one Wirecutter staffer, associate editor Michael Zhao, loves his four-year-old model 7310 (a budget offering that’s now sold as the model 3100). He’d previously used standard blades, and found himself getting severe razor bumps and ingrown hairs. Zhao, who described himself as having “coarse but sparse facial hair,” said that the Philips model gives him a “closer shave in less time, and bumps and ingrown hairs have all but disappeared.”
Again, all this points to the importance of finding what works best for you, and if one of our foil choices isn’t doing the job, you may get better results with a Norelco—though we think most budget-minded buyers should opt for the company’s triple-floating head model 6100, which offers performance much closer to that of the company’s higher-end models.
What about other brands? In the rotary category, there used to be none—Philips held all the patents and trademarks on both the technology and the triple-headed shaver shape. But in 2004, a European court ruled that the Dutch company didn’t have a legal claim in restricting other companies from making three-headed (or more) razors. Today, Remington has more or less cloned the entire Philips line, offering everything from the entry-level model R3 to the XR1340 Patriot Edition, which is unbelievably awesome not because of how it shaves, but because of its star-spangled finish. It screams, “there’s not a person on earth who wouldn’t love to have their face’s butt kicked with this bad boy,” making it our pick for people believe everything they wear, touch, or own should have the American flag as its design motif, and to heck with anybody who points out that the actual product is made in China, as Remington’s Old Glory-themed groomer is. (If you want a US-made shaver, buy a Wahl.)
No-name imports constitute your other rotary options. Most often available on eBay or Ali Express, these devices sport four or even five circular heads. Usually about $30, these shave poorly and are plagued by reports of unreliability. Don’t do it.
To get the smoothest, most comfortable electric shave, no matter what shaver you choose, you’ll need to remember that electrics can’t easily get as close as a blade. Most electric shaver makers offer advice on how to get the optimal shave. Unfortunately, that advice sometimes conflicts. Braun, for example, suggests shaving first thing in the morning: (“We recommend that you shave before you wash, since the skin tends to be slightly swollen after washing.”) Philips says to wash, but not shower (“otherwise your skin will be hot, puffy…”). Our testers used different techniques. Andrew Lichtman prefers to shave first thing in the morning with no washing. Gregory Han sometimes shaves before showering, sometimes after, with no noticeable difference in results. I’ve dabbled with electric razors most of my adult life, and my technique is mostly based on saving time. With two kids, I’m always in a rush first thing in the morning; when I’m manual shaving, I shave in the shower, but with an electric shaver, I skip that, waiting until a calmer moment mid-morning to shave.
No matter when you shave, you’ll do best following some basic technique tips. Men’s Health UK offers a fairly extensive tutorial, but the takeaway is go lightly. You don’t want to press those cutting blades into your skin. Instead, gently pull the skin taut with one hand and let the razor glide over your face in slow, steady strokes; you’ll want to experiment with circular motions, straight strokes, and going with or against the grain (you’re looking for the perfect balance of closeness and post-shave comfort). All of the razors we recommend have pivoting heads, so maintaining a proper angle is easy, but if you’re using a shaver with a fixed head—like a Wahl—you’ll want to make sure that the head is held at a right angle to your skin. Nearly every shaver manufacturer—in a tacit admission that their products really don’t shave as close as a blade—recommends that you snag your longest, toughest facial hairs first, using the shaver’s built-in trimmer. Several of our testers said that they used a manual razor to get those hairs at the end of the shave, which to us felt kind of like a “what’s the point” proposition.
One question we were asked a lot was whether or not to use a pre-shave. The best known of these is Williams Lectric Shave, an alcohol-based solution that helps “the shaver glide with less irritation.” (The product used to claim—see this advertisement from a 1982 issue of “Field & Stream”—that it made your “beard stand up”. How much this actually happens isn’t entirely easy to establish, and I was the only tester who actually uses and likes a pre-shave.) It turns out that the magic ingredient in most pre-shaves is isopropyl myristate, a synthetic oil created by compounding alcohol and a fatty acid. Combined, the two provide lubrication (the substance is also a key ingredient in Liquid Wrench) without a greasy feeling, so claims that they help an electric razor glide are probably credible.
Though I don’t use Lectric Shave—it smells too much like my Uncle Larry’s bathroom—my preferred pre-shave, Kyoku for Men’s Electric Pre Shave Optimizer, does contain that key ingredient, which I find does make my skin feel smoother and more taut for shaving. Other pre-shaves include powders (effective, but messy, according to Amazon reviews) and thicker creams, like Mennen’s Afta (they tend to gunk up the shaver, making it tougher to clean).
Now that Braun has introduced the Series 9, we’d like to see the technology included in that product come down to lower price points. And we expect that shaver companies will continue to diversify their product lines, much to the confused dismay of shoppers. You generally do get what you pay for in shaving, and if shaving with power is your preferred method, you’ll do well to consider both the initial cost of the product along with the costs of potential consumables. It’s a bit of a dig on an entire category to say so, but you’ll definitely want to hold on to your receipt—and give your face at least two weeks of evaluation time.
What to look forward to? Well, here’s a fantasy: looking forward means looking backward. We’d love to see electric shavers that actually look good again. It is almost impossible for Braun to recreate the Dieter Rams era—it probably shouldn’t try—because it wants its shavers to do so much, so fast; likewise, Ronson, whose Atomic Shaver was a gorgeous thing of 1950s beauty, isn’t even in business anymore. But we’d love to see a compact razor that looks clean and minimal and really works well. But we’re guessing that a retro-shaver renaissance isn’t likely to happen; a product that’s affordable, efficient, maintainable, and gorgeous just doesn’t fit with today’s shaver business models. Until then, we’ll have to be content with a shaver that’s relatively affordable and works well. That’s the not-beautiful, but very efficient, Braun Series 7.
(Photos by Dan Koeppel.)
Originally published: December 18, 2015